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Southern Religious Tribalism

The American mythologist and comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell relished telling a story about Black Elk, an old Sioux medicine man. Keeper of the Sacred Pipe of his people, Black Elk’s life spanned the era from his participation in “Custer’s Last stand”, the great Ghost Dance, and the massacre at Wounded Knee to the era of fully established European settlement  of the old West. Toward the end of his life he spoke of the defining vision he had been given as a boy. As John Neihardt quoted in Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk had found himself standing on a mountain top, “…the central mountain of the world….seeing in a sacred manner….the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all things as they must live together, like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.”

The mountain was, of course, a local mountain, Harney Peak, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But Black Elk knew what the local place represented: “…anywhere is the center of the world.”

In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell declares, “There, I would say, was a true prophet, who knew the difference between his ethnic ideas and the elementary ideas that they enclose, between a metaphor and its connotations, between a tribal myth and its metaphysical import.”

Twenty-first century Christians of the American South tend to be far more, if you will, “tribal” than Black Elk. The religious vision of this person who was the Medicine Man for his tribe was genuinely “universal”. His vision was certainly grounded in the reality he knew – his time, his place, and his people, but when the sacredness of that hoop was recognized it extended ever outward to take in the whole of all people and places and times, and of all stars and planets and space, so the navel of the universe is understood to be everywhere. Southern Christians, on the other hand, are so strongly identified with their particular southern culture that their faith is taken as part and parcel of it. When this happens, when religion and culture are wed, “tribalism” is unavoidable. The result is that southern Christianity tends to be expressed rather more narrowly than would ever pass muster in a universalized understanding of the Christian faith.

Campbell challenges Christianity, and any religion that hopes to speak to the people of an evolving new age, to grow beyond what he terms “the tribal” into that which is more genuinely “universal”. This is a challenge for any and all Christians to take seriously and address sincerely.

Meanwhile, too many southerners seem determined to ignore any such challenge; southern culture and southern religion go together and that is going to be hard to change. There seems to be an identifiable dominant southern religious perspective (catholic and protestant) and an identifiable dominant southern culture, and they are taken together – or rejected together. Which, one may wonder, comes first, the chicken or the egg: the political, social, and philosophical worldview of the southern culture or the religious perspective of the southern churches. Obviously, each shapes the counterpart. Indeed, one can get the sense of an attitude that others – far and near – should either conform to their “way of life” and religious belief or leave the true believers alone to act according to the preferences of the local tribe.

Campbell begins The Outer Reaches of Inner Space (his last book) with his thesis that the world is moving into an age in which reliance on “the tribal” features of a religion will not satisfy even “the tribe”, that is, the peoples that are heirs to a religion that originated in a particular people, culture, and place. He believes that such tribalism was a necessary stage in the development of each religion up to this time. He agrees that religious tribalism played a healthy, even necessary role in the controlling, socializing, and harmonizing of the primitive bio-energies of the human animal for the purposes of health, progeny, and prosperity — first of local tribes and then communities and finally civilizations.

However, Campbell warns, the time is past when this tribalism will work. It was helpful to health for Jews to religiously refuse to eat certain foods that were dangerous in the Middle East of the era, but what is the universally religious meaning today in refusing to eat pork? It just separates Jews from all others. What religious value is there today for Muslim women to hide all but their eyes with cloth, except to declare a separatist religion?

According to Campbell the desire to hang onto forms of tribalism has become counter-productive. The need to offer religious myths, metaphors, doctrines, and practices that are universal instead of localized has become a pressing demand; it is also a new opportunity. The necessity and the opportunity are mandated in large measure by the rapidly growing globalization. We find fundamental assumptions about reality being joltingly overthrown and many already replaced:

“The image of the universe will no longer be the old Sumero-Babylonian, locally centered, three-layered affair, of a heaven above and abyss below, with an ocean-encircled bit of earth between; nor the later, Ptolemaic one, of a mysteriously suspended globe enclosed in an orderly complex of revolving crystalline spheres; nor even the recent heliocentric image of a single planetary system at large within a galaxy of exploding stars; but (as of today, at least) an inconceivable immensity of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and clusters of clusters (superclusters) of galaxies, speeding apart into expanding distance, with humanity as a kind of recently developed scurf on the epidermis of one of the lesser satellites of a minor star in the outer arm of an average galaxy, amidst one of the lesser clusters among the thousands, catapulting apart, which took form some fifteen billion years ago as a consequence of an inconceivable preternatural event.”

 Campbell’s insight begins with the recognition that each lasting and widely accepted religion had its origins in a local and specific situation, one that proved formative for a “tribe,” an ethnos, a genos, a “people.” However, those that will endure must mature so as to be more universally valid across cultural boundaries. This leads to a demanding conclusion: A religion is true in proportion to the extent it speaks universal truth, with relevance and full respect for different cultures and for the world’s diversity.

Note that this cuts two ways. When a religion remains “local”, in the sense of being culturally bound, it fails to meet the standards of truth for those in different locales. And, when a religion insists that the whole world must conform to the mores, traditional perspectives, and values of a certain culture in order to be faithful to its vision of the truth – whether in doctrine or ritual – that religion is instead subversive of universal truth, and it is certainly less believable beyond its self-imposed cultural boundaries. This, surely, is one of the reasons Christianity is losing committed, church-going-members at a rate that must be recognized — throughout Western culture and even in the Bible-belt.

Most Americans, not only Southerners, are subject to the judgment of associating their faith with “the American way of life” (roughly referring to an institutionalized collection of beliefs about America that are considered “sacred”.) This has been designated as “civil religion”, which is another way of talking about “tribalism”. Americans are prone to confuse civil religion with the way they are called to interpret and exercise their faith. It should be obvious that the confusion of civil religion with the strong tradition of Christianity and Judaism that calls society to justice in the name of a just God can be problematic. Americans on both sides called on the name of God during the Civil Rights Movement. This confusion reflects the sort of reduction to “tribalism” against which Campbell warns us.

For Southerners this American tendency to civil religion is on steroids. One result is that the range of religious affiliation tends to be narrower for Southerners. (Check that out by asking anyone who does not fit within the expectations.) It has long been a given that a Southerner is to be Christian, Protestant, and Conservative; more recently it is acceptable to be a conservative Roman Catholic. These religious commitments are likely to be joined to common assumptions about the social and cultural issues that are at controversy in the nation as a whole, at any given time. (Taken together, the way religion and culture have influenced one another has led to something approaching a regional voting block for conservative politics. In the last election, the southeast was colored blue only on its eastern edges, in Virginia and Florida.)

The wedded assumptions of religion and culture that contribute to the mistaking of Southern civil religion for universal religious claims are produced by many well-identified factors. Culturally, account can be taken of the history that is unique to the region of the old Confederacy: economics, esteem for the military, prominence of hunting and deference to guns, regard for self-reliance, American exceptionalism and so forth. Religiously, considerations include the higher level of church-going commitment than in other regions, highly individualistic piety and theology, understanding of sin that puts more emphasis on personal behavior then social morality, and so on. And of course, certain traits are shared in the southern religious and cultural ethos, such as authoritarian rigidity. However, the leading religious feature is widespread fundamentalism and the central cultural dynamic is white dominance and privilege.

None of the cultural and religious factors listed, and few that distinguish Southern civic religion from other parts of the nation can be considered “universals” in the sense that these are religious claims to be made to all peoples of all cultures around the world. Joseph Campbell would call for Southern prophets who can see that “…anywhere is the center of the world,” to appreciate, “…the difference between ethnic ideas and the elementary ideas that they enclose, between a metaphor and its connotations, between a tribal myth and its metaphysical import.” In an age that is not going to cease moving into globalization it will be important for the Southern way of life to take this as an opportunity, an opportunity to grow beyond what is merely tribal into that religious commitment that is more genuinely universal.

Black Elk lived until eighty-six years of age and became rather famous  as a sage, widely traveled and broadly recognized in North America and Europe. The Medicine Man of his tribe, Black Elk also became an ordained deacon and a missionary of the Christian Church. He accomplished a mature integration of his Christian faith and the Lakota tradition. What he recognized was that the Christ is intended to be for everyone; the church proclaiming Jesus as Lord represented for him the realization of everyone’s tribal hoop as universal. He did not abandon his culture or his tribe, but he included them in the fullness of what the church claims about creation and the coming kingdom of God.